Autonomous Vehicles and Police De-escalation

Woods, Jordan Blair | September 9, 2019

Several experts predict that autonomous vehicles will become mainstream in the next few decades. Although autonomous vehicles will have massive implications for law enforcement, the technology has received little to no attention in criminal procedure and policing scholarship. This Essay introduces a new vector into the nascent law and policy discourse on autonomous vehicles and policing—de-escalation and officer safety. Although largely overlooked in this discourse, officer safety is a crucial topic given its powerful role in shaping officer training, departmental policies, and Fourth Amendment law. This Essay argues that autonomous vehicles and their included technologies (for instance, sensory technology, real-time high definition (HD) mapping, and network connectivity systems) have promise to decrease possibilities for escalation during vehicle stops in at least five ways: (1) vehicles will be programmed to follow traffic rules, making traffic stops much less common; (2) sensory technology will prevent vehicles from hitting other vehicles or persons, decreasing motor vehicle assaults against officers; (3) driver’s license requirements could be eliminated, taking the enforcement of driver’s license laws out of the hands of police; (4) DUI law reforms could abolish the need for officers to conduct DUI stops, investigations, or arrests; and (5) sensory technology in vehicles will reduce investigations associated with hit-and-run offenses, and will simplify accident investigations overall. This Essay explores how these potential changes have vast implications for Fourth Amendment law, officer training, and law enforcement policy on motor vehicle stops.


Assistant Professor of Law, University of Arkansas School of Law, Fayetteville. I am thankful for the helpful discussions and suggestions from Maureen Carroll, Beth Colgan, Andrew Crespo, Mary Fan, Andrew Ferguson, Brenner Fissell, Sharon Foster, Will Foster, Brian Gallini, Carol Goforth, Sara Gosman, Aya Gruber, Rachel Harmon, Wes Henricksen, Alex Lee, Cynthia Lee, Jill Lens, Jonathan Marshfield, Jonathan Masur, Tiffany Murphy, Cyndi Nance, Alex Nunn, Susannah Pollvogt, Laurent Sacharoff, David Schwartz, Joanna Schwartz, Nadav Shoked, Annie Smith, Seth Stoughton, Alan Trammell, and Ekow Yankah. I am grateful for the feedback that I received at the Northwestern/Penn/Stanford Junior Faculty Forum for Law and STEM, the Law of the Police Conference at the University of South Carolina School of Law, CrimFest 2018, ABA-AALS 2018 Criminal Justice Section Academic Roundtable, and faculty workshops at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, Brooklyn Law School, and Cardozo Law School. Thank you to the editors and staff of the Northwestern University Law Review Online for their careful edits and suggestions.

Copyright 2019 by Jordan Blair Woods

Cite as: Jordan Blair Woods, Autonomous Vehicles and Police De-escalation, 114 Nw. U. L. Rev. Online 74 (2019),